Last week I drove up to Albuquerque for my annual CAC Living School symposium. That means I had to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint.
Driving regularly on southwest Texas or New Mexico highways, I’ve gotten used to it.
I know the routine.
I slow down to a crawl until I’m face to face with a Border Patrol agent. I roll down my window. He sees my white face, asks if I’m a U.S. citizen. I say yes. He answers, “Have a nice day.” I drive off. He never asks for my I.D. Never checks my car for smuggled goods, or people for that matter.
There’s no doubt it’s racial profiling. But that’s the way it is.
Usually it’s pretty quick. Even when the cars ahead of me are not driven by Anglos. They have to show their I.D.s or documentation, of course. Often the agent looks in the car. But there’s no hesitation.
Not this time.
This time a few cars were lined up ahead of me. The agent was slowly thumbing through the pages in his hand, as the driver waited. He looked over each one carefully, then returned to the first page and started the process over again, as if he wasn’t quite satisfied.
This agent seemed to not want to accept the documents he was holding were legitimate. Or else he wanted to make the brown-skinned driver squirm.
While waiting, the woman in the car in front of me jumped out and opened her back hatch. She pulled out a suitcase and removed what looked like two passports. The woman was Hispanic.
Finally, after fingering through the pages a few more times, the agent let the first car go. Then the second car drove up. He poked his head down, asked a few questions and let the driver go.
Then it was the Hispanic woman’s turn. She handed over two passports, for herself and her passenger. One was blue like a U.S. passport, the other dark green. The color of a Mexican passport.
The agent flipped open the U.S. passport, then put it aside. When he opened the other passport, he hesitated. He looked at it, looked at her, looked at it again. Then he just held it between his fingers, waiting.
By now I could feel myself growing angry.
“C’mon, buddy! Either it’s legitimate or it’s not!” I shouted in my car with the windows still closed.
He stood there for a few moments more. Not doing anything. Not asking any questions. Just holding the passport. Then he handed them both back to the woman.
Next it was my turn.
“U.S. citizen, ma’am?” With a downturned mouth, he demanded rather than asked the question.
“Anybody traveling with you?”
“You’re free to go,” he scowled. Forget the “have a nice day.”
The negativity coming through the open window was palpable.
Clearly, this man was in pain. But it upset me, how he was projecting that pain onto others, especially people of darker complexions.
He could do a lot of damage with the power and the position he had.
The thing is, none of us escapes pain in our lives. We all have places of wounding and brokenness. Oblivious to this brokenness, we inflict our pain onto others.
Right now, in our country, it feels as though we are experiencing this at a magnified level…this projection of pain onto others.
We’re having a hard time looking within ourselves. Letting ourselves feel the extent of our sadness, our hurt, our grief, our need for healing, our failure to be responsible for one another. We don’t want to feel it.
And what we won’t acknowledge and take responsibility for, we are bound to repeat. Without self-awareness, we can numb ourselves to the atrocities committed against others.
In fact, this is something we’re trying to address at the Living School. The unacknowledged painful effects of racism and white privilege. I’d say it’s causing a reaction in us.
For me, being a writer, I naturally want to write about what I witness. I pay attention to the pain and suffering I see in those I accompany at the border. In the encounters I have with others.
It shows me how we are not separate at all. It shows me how I feel the same fears, hide out in the same ways, and want to close off my heart to those who have hurt me. Just like most of us do.
But in writing about it and letting myself feel it, maybe I can become more aware. Soften the pain. Create my own checkpoint for the ways I block off the borders of my heart. And not repeat this very human pattern of inflicting pain.